Nostra Signora della Cunetta

Our Lady of the Gutter

Walking on the shaded side of Longsands Avenue, he saw a small lady’s-mantle in the gutter. Alchemilla mollis. The soft little alchemical one. It was new-grown and its pleated leaves were fresh and green against the cement. He wished he could spin a poem out of it, out of the unexpected sight, something deep and mysterious and Larkinesque. A line, or two lines, occurred to him. The line of the gutter/Stutters with green. But where to go after that? Later, walking back along Longsands Road, he heard a twittering, or thought he did, and looked up to see swifts high up, swirling, swooping, seeking insects he couldn’t see. Aëroplankton. Again he wished he could capture the moment, condense the sight into potent language. He thought a little. Sickle-wing swifts/Reap the insected air. But again, where to go after that? He liked “insected air”, though. It had an assonance of “infected air”. But why not a portmanteau? Reap the insfected air. He’d always liked words that started with sph and sf. Sphinx. Sphragistics. Sfumato. Sforzando. “Insfected air” would be air that had insects and pollution in it. Reaped by sickle-wing swifts, fluttering their wings like eyelashes. He remembered that Ted Hughes had written a poem about swifts, but he didn’t like it. It had reminded him of Gerard Manley Hopkins, left out in the rain for a week or two. Perhaps Larkin had written about swifts too, or mentioned them. He hadn’t finished The Complete Poems yet.

Later in the day, he was walking along the promenade. The tide was out, but a tongue of water had been left at the foot of the gold-lichen-splashed sea-wall. He climbed down the steps to it, squatting on his haunches and looking into the wind-rippled water. He saw a shrimp first, then, perhaps when the shock of his shadow or the tremors of his arrival had subsided, tiny flounder began to flick to and fro over the sandy mud. When you saw them move and settle, you could just see their outlines. Otherwise it would be impossible to know where they were. The previous year, on a very hot day, another flounder had been defeated by its camouflage: not protected by it, but doomed. The same tongue of water had stretched along the foot of the sea-wall, but it had been shrinking in the fierce sun. He had rescued some of the dozens of shrimp that crowded the damp but drying sand at one end of the tongue. They were flicking themselves into the air as they dried, hoping to land in water, disappointed again and again. He collected them on his palm and threw them into the deeper water in the middle of the tongue.

As always when he did something like that, he wondered whether it was better not to interfere. Perhaps preserving the weak just means greater misery in future. But they weren’t weak, they were unlucky. Probably. But perhaps unluckiness was weakness too. Because weakness led to unluckiness. Then he left the sand and the shrimps to walk to Merrimont Park. Later, walking back along the promenade, he walked down the steps again and looked at the sand where he had rescued the shrimps. It was completely dry now and he saw what he hadn’t seen before: a tiny dead flounder. If he had seen it before, he would have rescued it, but its camouflage had been too good, defeating his eye, so it had dried and died with dozens of shrimp, hundreds of them, thousands. A hammic hecatomb. Unnoticed and unmourned, except by him. Nature was always sacrificing her self to herself. Insects, arthropods, myriad little lives lost daily, hourly. Presided by whom? Perhaps Our Lady of the Gutter.  Nostra Signora della Cunetta. Nuestra Señora de la Cuneta. Our Lady of the Overlooked and Interstitial. He wished he could write a poem about her, complete the poems he had begun about the lady’s mantle and the swifts, but perhaps it was better that he couldn’t. Prose was better for stumbling, for incompleteness, for the rhythmless and rhymeless way the world threw fragments of beauty and consolation at you.

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